How to Return to Rowing After Time Off from Injury 

When I injured my back, I was convinced that I would be back on the water in no time. Cut to 2 years later and I still wasn’t back on the water yet and I was still in a lot of pain. Here’s how I made my return to the water.  

I didn’t actually realise that I had done any damage during the session that I injured myself in. I went about my day as normal; 4-hour on-water session and then into the gym for a few reps of weights, eat, bed and that’s it. I woke up the next morning and I could barely move my legs from the pain that I was in. Luckily, I was on a training camp and my teammates were able to help me out of bed. I crawled to my coaches room using my arms to explain why I wouldn’t be able to train that day.  

Luckily the pain subsided once I had taken some pain killers and I was able to walk relatively normally. I went to the doctors and they told me that I had just pulled a muscle and that I would be fine in a few days. I went back to the club and got on the water again, but the pain just got worse throughout the day. It was only when I got back home and went to the hospital to get an x-ray that they would tell me that I had scoliosis, a slipped vertebrae and a bulging disc. Wonderful. 

My first steps to a return to the water 

Sat at home one morning, tired, and missing the water I decided that that day would be the day that I would stop taking my medically prescribed painkillers, and just get back into rowing. I went and grabbed my kit and went to the nearest rowing club that I could use. I jumped on an erg and rowed for a little bit to test the waters (Excuse the pun). Surprisingly I found that I was actually okay and didn’t have any pain. I did a proper warmup and prepared myself for getting back into a boat. I did a few balance-based stretches to make sure that I still retained some form of balance and was ready to get going. 

When I got on the water, I was more unprepared than I thought I was. Firstly, I had put on a bit of weight since I was last in the boat and that was pushing the boat closer to the edge of the water. Secondly, I couldn’t remember what way round my hands were supposed to sit. I was shocked. This is something that I had done every single day for years and I had forgotten the very basics. I asked one of the passing coaches, explained the situation and after a few laughs, I pushed off the dock and got on the water. 

The feeling was so familiar and refreshing. This is how I would return to my own personal former glory! After a bit of a wobbly start, I found my feet (Boat? Oars?) and I pushed on. I made it to the end of the stretch before I had to turn around. I wasn’t ready, and I knew it.  

My Failed Attempt at a Return to Water 

Something to note is that the return to the water after a long period of time off the water is most definitely a gradual process. The way I did it was wrong, and I was naïve to think that I would be able to just jump back on the water without any issues. You need to retrain those muscles that you would regularly use on the water and make sure that you’ve got the right technique going into it.  

One thing that you could do is to try and join some classes. Whether Junior or Senior, most rowing clubs will have classes led by an experienced coach who will be able to train whatever group of rowers they are given. This is what I did and I found it invaluable. After a few more months off the water I was able to get back to it for short stints of time and that was all I needed. When I got fitter, I was able to row for longer but I’m still very mindful of my back and that it is still susceptible to damage.  

How I eventually got back on the Water 

The way that I did it is just one of the ways you can return to the water but I’ll go over what I did so that it might help you. As I mentioned, I joined a class of already experienced rowers and the coach put a plan in place to help me strengthen my back, and to help me regain some confidence on the water. I did many long, low effort erg sessions to regain some of my technique that was lost along the way. This had the biggest impact on how I could row for longer. When I eventually got on the water again, the coach made sure to spend time with me to make sure that the erg technique translated onto the water. This was a great help because as I was able to work on the technique, I was able to work on my balance too. 

Another thing that I found extremely helpful was the weight training. I made sure that whenever I did any lifting, I would be wearing a weight-lifting belt to make sure that my posture was as correct as it could be and that I was taking things slow with high reps and low weight. I found the best thing for me was actually squatting, as many of the motions in a squat are the same as when you are in the boat, just with weights.  

How you can do it 

You have many options for getting back into rowing. One of them is the way that I did it which proved very effective for me. Another way you can go about it is just by doing some strengthening exercises at your local gym. You have to make sure that the way you’re doing these are correct though, you can end up doing more damage to your back if you start again incorrectly. The most important thing is that you don’t overdo it. A lot of people will think “I’ve lifted this before; I should be able to do it again”. You have to remember though that if you’ve taken a break for a while, you won’t retain all of that strength and you may leave yourself vulnerable to more injury. 

Check out some of our articles on strength building to see if they might help you with getting back into the swing of things.  

How to Build a Stronger Back for Rowing
The Benefits of Stretching